In a rather unfocussed way I’ve been tuning in and out of the discussion unfolding about poverty in the UK. I briefly read the paper produced by the Centre for Social Justice which deals with a specific issue of whether we should redefine the meaning of poverty since there will always be people in society with more or less money, and income inequality is not the same as poverty. This debate leads into the more general discussion of relative and absolute poverty: an obvious example is the difference between the poverty experienced by one person in the UK relative to the rest of the population (and in the context of a welfare state) in which their income is lower than a specific percentage amount of the average income versus the absolute level of poverty of a person who has nothing and can afford nothing.

I have just two thoughts about this:

The first is that I have been struck by what I can only describe as a lack of care or empathy in some responses to the issue. ‘Just get a job’ is an oft quoted comment, which regardless of whether having an income can lift you out of poverty, seems to lack a connection or insight into the human plight. My religious tradition teaches me that even the slightest injustice experienced anywhere in society, or even in our global village, is something that ripples through and has an effect on us all – even, for those who believe, affecting God.

In Isaiah’s prophecy we read the powerful message that is the Haftarah (prophetic reading) for Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement – a fast day):

“Is this the fast I desire, A day for men to starve their bodies?…No, this is the fast I desire: to unlock the fetters of  wickedness, and untie the cords of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free; to break of every yoke. It is to share your bread with the hungry, and to take the wretched poor into your home; when you see the naked, to clothe him, and not to ignore your own kin.” (Isaiah 58:5-7)

Or Ezekiel’s words: “If a person has not wronged anyone; if he has returned the debtor’s pledge to him and has taken nothing by robbery; if he has given bread to the hungry and clothed the naked; if he has not lent at advance interest or exacted accrued interest; if he has abstained from wrongdoing and executed true justice between person and person; if he has followed My laws and kept My rules and acted honestly – he is righteous.” (Ezekiel 18:7-9)

As Rabbi Israel I Mattuck (a founder of Liberal Judaism and rabbi at The Liberal Jewish Synagogue where I work) writes:

“The emphasis which the Prophets put on the collective life of human societies does not exclude appreciation for the high significance of the individual in relation to God; and their concern for the spiritual and moral life of the individual does not ignore, or push aside, the moral value in the collective life of society…The law fuses the individual and the community into a moral unity. The dichotomy, individual and society, is dissolved under the dominion of the law of God. It commands respect for the life, dignity and rights of human being; it imposes social duties on individuals. Under the moral law, individual righteousness and social justice work together to give the individual his rights and society its righteousness.” (The Thought of the Prophets, p. 91).

Or as Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel writes, after emphasising individual responsibility:

“Above all, the prophets remind us of the moral state of a people: Few are guilty, but all are responsible. If we admit that the individual is in some measure conditioned or affected by the spirit of society, an individual’s crime discloses society’s corruption. In a community not indifferent to suffering, uncompromisingly impatient with cruelty and falsehood, continually concerned for God and every man, crime would be infrequent rather than common.” (The Prophets, Vol I, p.16)

Therefore, it is my contention that the voice of religious communities today should be unequivocal in their concern with even the smallest injustice and for the well-being of all in society. There is no reason to adopt a political party line on these matters, but rather to be a consistent and vociferous voice on the side of the human experience of hardship – even down to a single individual. It is not just the religious communities but everyone who must make a concerted effort to show that it is the minority who are unmoved by the plight of individuals and dismissive of their very real challenges.

My second point is that Jewish teachings are very much aware of the experience of absolute poverty, as distinct from relative poverty, but that does not dull a sense of compassion in the texts nor the awareness of need amongst those experiencing hardship. I am always horrified by the passage in Deuteronomy that describes such abject poverty as to find mothers eating their own children:

“…leaving you nothing of new grain, wine, or oil, of the calving of your herds and the lambing of your flocks, until it has brought you to ruin. It shall shut you up in all your towns throughout your land until very mighty towering wall in which you trust has come down. And when you are shut up in all your towns throughout your land that the Eternal One your God has assigned to you, you shall eat your own issue, the flesh of your sons and daughters that the Eternal One your God has assigned to you because of the desperate straits to which your enemy shall reduce you. He who is most tender and fastidious among you shall be too mean to his brother and the wife of his bosom and the children he has spared to share with them any of them the flesh of the children that he eats because he has nothing else left as a result of the desperate straits to which your enemy shall reduce you in all your towns. And she who is most tender and dainty among you, so tender and dainty that she would never venture to set a foot on the ground, shall begrudge the husband of her bosom, and her son and her daughter, the afterbirth that issues from between her legs and the babies she bears; she shall eat them secretly, because of utter want, in the desperate straits to which your enemy shall reduce you in your towns.” (Deuteronomy 28:51-57)

Only someone with the most vivid of imaginations or with the experience of horrendous poverty could imagine such a horrific image. Such is this description of absolute poverty – being in such straits – I feel nauseous and weep at the prospect of what a person might be driven to.

But there is also an awareness of relative poverty. In a quite beautiful description of awareness of the economic plight of others the Mishnah in Taanit 4:8 describes the following:

“Israel had no greater days as festive as the fifteenth of Av and Yom Kippur. For on those days the maidens of Jerusalem would go out dressed in white garments that were borrowed, so as not to embarrass those maidens who were poor.”

Nobody was to be put in a position in which they were made to feel deprived and embarrassed at their relative state of poverty and so the community, together, ensured that everyone was included and distinction in wealth concealed. For me this concern for the relationship between members of a society is exactly at the heart of what it means to think about relative poverty as important. We may be horrified by the suggestion that having a mobile phone could be a measure of poverty – it’s not as if life cannot carry on regardless of whether you own a mobile phone. However, the way in which this deprivation reflects inequality in society has an impact on all of society. The outcome in the Mishnah was to ensure that at least at significant moments for the community these deprivations were concealed or that the richest were obligated to include the poorest. Exclusion from the accepted norms of quality of life, in relative terms, can be as damaging to society and to individuals as absolute deprivation as described in Deuteronomy.

Another text (derived from earlier discussions) has always stuck with me in thinking about how a society is compassionate to those in financial straits and issues of relative poverty.

In something called the Teshuvot Ba’alei Tosefot from the middle ages, we read:

“Even as you say that one who has 200 zuz may take from tzedakah.  But I say that everything depends on what a person needs to support his household.  For we find if a person is a wine drinker we need to double the limit to 400 zuz according to that which he is accustomed.” (Teshuvot Ba’alei Tosefot 32).

The 200 zuz (a set amount of money) was the ‘arbitrary’ figure at which poverty was frequently defined. Yet, here we find that in a sympathetic understanding of poverty, one with which we may not agree,  that poverty is not just defined by the relative wealth of the rest of society, but also by the relative cost of living already experienced by a  person. And not just a person who has fallen on hard times but an addict. In other words, though this is only one voice in the literature and is, I would suspect a bit controversial, the calculation of relative poverty must take into consideration the lifestyle before poverty struck – even self-inflected poverty and dependency (on substances and on charitable giving); would we ever go this far even if we had unlimited funds? I don’t know, but it’s a challenging proposition.

With regards to the arbitrary line that distinguishes one person who is in poverty from another, there is an interesting debate in the Talmud about the arbitrary measures of legal systems – there must be some. And in the Yerushalmi (The Palestinian Talmud) Peah 8:8 we read a remarkable story of Rabbi Judah HaNasi (the patriarch of the community in the land of Israel in around 200 CE):

“One disciple of Rabbi Judah HaNasi had 199 zuz.  Rabbi Judah HaNasi was accustomed to give him the poor tithe once every three years.  The disciples gave him the evil eye, and topped up his ownership to 200 zuz (the arbitrary cut off for the poverty line).  When Rabbi Judah HaNasi came to give him charity, he said to Rabbi Judah HaNasi that he possessed the minimum amount.  Rabbi Judah HaNasi retorted that he had been touched by the slap of the Pharisees (presumably the need to be literal and absolute in measures).  Rabbi Judah HaNasi intimated to his students that they bring this poor student to the tavern [and eat at his expense].  They thereby decreased his net worth by ¼ of a dinar.  Then Rabbi gave him his usual poor tithe.”

Here the Talmud shows an incredible sensitivity to the plight of someone in poverty and also the degree to which ‘even’ in the pious circles of religious students the jealous, indifference and cruel streak can take over. Of course we know for the purposes of the disbursement of public funds and to measure how many people are in poverty there must be some line (and there are actually at least four measures in place), but that does not mean we as individuals must be literal in our application and lacking in compassion nor should we imply that someone only just below the line might just as well be above the line. Or indeed allow our harsh tendencies to overtake a human concern for the other.

So finally, I think that religions must be a voice to defend the individuals who experience poverty in both relative and absolute terms because to do otherwise is to lack compassion for the human experience – and to lack understanding of the role of social living on the individual. We also find in Jewish literature an awareness of absolute and relative poverty – which both inform our understanding of how we give charity (or to use the Hebrew term – tzedakah). Tzedakah is a word that implies justice, righteousness and balance – both challenging income inequality, social inequality and what the report describes as family poverty. That is a Jewish outlook on what it means to give and I hope informs our national debate.

And as an aside: I must say, whilst I understood the report’s shift from income measures of poverty to understanding the causes of poverty, I remain unconvinced (as is the Archbishop of York for different and similar reasons) by some of the language of the report and found it to be confused about the way child poverty is measured, the cause of poverty and the ways to tackle child poverty (Oxfam blog on this subject) – not to mention government commitments (Channel 4 Fact Check) to tackling child poverty.